Based on the number of articles generated per exhibition hour, New Money, an exhibition of 14 new works by Andy Bauch, easily became the most written about show of the year during its three day run at Castelli Art Space in Los Angeles last March. The show generated dozens of magazine articles and blog posts, and not just in art publications, but also in those covering economics and finances. What brought such prolific and diverse media attention to such a modest exhibition by an early career artist? It was mainly the medium Bauch used to make the work. I am not talking about Lego bricks and Lite-Brite lights, although on the surface (so to speak) that is indeed what the 14 works are made of. I am talking about the conceptual medium: the stuff that was invisible to the naked eye, hidden within the visual fabric of the compositions—cryptocurrency. What look at first like abstract geometric patterns in the work are in fact visual manifestations of mathematical algorithms devised from encrypted passcode keys, which can be used to unlock digital wallets containing various amounts of cryptocurrency. If that sentence made sense to you, feel free to jump ahead to the last section of this article. If not, let me try to unpack its meaning as best I can.
Cryptocurrency is a type of digital money. You can acquire it by trading it for Euros or Dollars or any other type of fiat currency, and then you can use it to buy products or services. Unlike nationalized currencies, cryptocurrency is global. Its most famous variety is Bitcoin. Like all money, cryptocurrency has no inherent value other than the value agreed upon by the people who use it. Unlike other money, it is impossible to track who uses cryptocurrency, or to discover what they use it for. It is sort of like the electronic version of those little tickets you buy at a carnival—the ones you use to ride the rides or buy giant pretzels. Transactions can easily be proven to have occurred, but the money leaves no record of who used it. This is why cryptocurrency has become the ideal way to buy illicit things like drugs or weapons, or in some cases stolen art, on the dark web.
Andy Bauch - Bitcoin Initially Valued at $50, 2016. 1,717 Lego Pieces, 15 x 15 in, © Andy Bauch Studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy Andy Bauch Studio, Los Angeles
The value, and thus the buying power of cryptocurrency fluctuates constantly. Relying on it as a primary economic tool is therefore a gamble. It is also unregulated and unsecured, and could vanish at any moment from existence. Then again, it could also skyrocket in value any moment. Bauch sees connections between these factors and those that govern the investment potential of art. The works in New Money are inspired by that connection. Bauch bought small denominations of various cryptocurrencies and stored them in digital wallets—electronic mechanisms that store financial value (sort of like gift cards, or PayPal accounts). He locked each digital wallet with a passcode then translated the code into an encrypted visual key, which, if someone can decipher it, will unlock the wallet. Any viewer—not just buyers—can take their shot at deciphering the visual keys. Bauch offered buyers of his works a clue, though that did not guarantee they would be able to break the code.
Andy Bauch - New Money, installation view at Castelli Art Space, 2018, photo courtesy Castelli Art Space
The use of cryptocurrency as a medium is what inspired so many online journalists to cover this exhibition. What none of these writers mentioned, however, is that there is nothing original about using currency to make art. Just google “art made from money” and see for yourself, or look at this list published by an academic accounting site, featuring ten artists who make work out of actual paper money or coins. Beyond hard cash, artists have been using other financial commodities, like gold and precious stones, in their work for thousands of years. In 2007, Damien Hirst bought a human skull, encrusted it with platinum then topped it with 8,601 diamonds. Titled For the Love of God, the thing cost £14 million to produce. The street value of the stones was around £10 million. (Hirst priced the diamond skull at £50 million. He failed to find a buyer and ultimately bought it himself, with help from an anonymous consortium of investors.)
Andy Bauch - Bitcoin Initially Valued at $90, 2017. 2,304 Lego Pieces, 15 x 15 in, © Andy Bauch Studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy Andy Bauch Studio, Los Angeles
Conceptually, a diamond skull by Damien Hirst is no different than a gold-leafed painting by Lina Viktor, a crystal basketball hoop by Victor Solomon, or the crystal skull made in 1993 by John LeKay, which Hirst allegedly copied. These fetish items all perform to our need for idolatry. What Bauch did is different. He embedded the precious medium in such a way that any viewer can claim it. Imagine if you bought one of his works, unlocked the key then discovered someone with a screenshot of the work had already drained the digital wallet. It would be like buying a diamond encrusted skull only to get it home and find out the diamonds had all fallen off en route. You would just have a skull covered in platinum. Sure, it would still have the name Damien Hirst on it. That would be worth something, probably—but the question is, what? What is the intrinsic value of the intervention of an artist? What is the intrinsic value of a diamond? What is the intrinsic value of a skull? What is the intrinsic value of an idea. The value of most material things can disappear at any moment. That is one of the points Bauch is making. By imbuing artworks with riddles that everyone is free totry and decode, he is also declaring that the value of art is unique. It is not measured by market fluctuations. Its worth belongs to anyone with eyes to see, or a mind to think.
Featured image: Andy Bauch - New Money, installation view at Castelli Art Space, 2018, photo courtesy Castelli Art Space
By Phillip Barcio